Self Defense: If not now, when?
By Lore Axe
“If we are sitting upon a dying earth, and consequently dying as a species solely as a result of the nature of our society, if the technology we have developed is indeed depleting the earth, destroying the air and water, wiping out entire species daily, and steadily weakening us to the point of extinction . . . then is it not time – long past time – when we should do anything, indeed everything, necessary to put an end to such madness? Is it not in fact an act of unadulterated self defense to do so?” 1

For those concerned with radical economic, political, and social change, it should be apparent that ecologically speaking time is very short. Scientists estimate that as many as 137 species disappear from the Earth each day, which adds up to an astounding 50,000 species disappearing every year. 2 While movements of the past may have had the luxury of putting off an idealized Revolution far into the future, those who are oppressed now and those who desire an ecologically sustainable world certainly feel the need for immediate action.

Fundamental change requires that the means to achieve the desired end challenge the extreme violence of the present system. Mike Ryan’s assessment on the efficacy of nonviolent resistance is poignant: “Do we really believe the state allows small groups to engage in openly planned and publicized protest actions because it is somehow powerless in the face of our truth, superior morality, or whatever? Clearly, the state allows us to engage in these actions because they are harmless, or worse, because they reinforce the popular myth of ... democracy.” 3 While nonviolence can be an effective tactic in some circumstances, strict pacifism by itself will never threaten the current system.

In modern civilized (sic) culture, the term “violence”, when applied to the actions of the oppressed struggling against the oppressors, is loaded with negative moral connotations beyond the simple definition of “using great physical force.” 4

The institutions controlling the media further manipulate the term, as it pertains to protest and other forms of struggle, by ignoring the violent acts committed by people and institutions in power, demonizing acts of self-defense by protesters, and justifying the force used by the authorities. This tactic infers that those who are oppressed have no business being disruptive or violent (completely obfuscating the violence perpetrated by the state) and that the police are justified in defending private property and suppressing free speech with violence.

The people in power are waging war against the poor, women, children, people of color, and the environment. This is nothing new and by now it should be clear to all that those in power are not going to end their oppression simply by being asked, or because it is the rational and ethical thing to do. Non-violent protest is simply a way of begging those in power to voluntarily change behavior that they directly benefit from. This groveling reinforces the hierarchy structure, promotes the illusion of democracy and has never resulted in any fundamental social or political change. The inherent contradiction of a strict pacifistic strategy for revolutionary change, in the words of Ward Churchill, is:

“Any nonviolent confrontation of state power must ultimately depend either on the state refraining from unleashing some real measure of its potential violence, or the active presence of some counterbalancing violence of precisely the sort pacifism professes to reject as a political option. Absurdity clearly abounds when suggesting that the state will refrain form using all necessary physical force to protect against undesired forms of change and threats to its safety. Nonviolent tacticians imply (perhaps unwittingly) that the ‘immoral state’ which they seek to transform will somehow exhibit exactly the same sort of superior morality they claim for themselves.” 5

Those who control the state and capital must essentially suppress their ethics in favor of adopting the principles necessary for being successful in an exploitative system. To wage war against humanity, and the rest of the biosphere, explicitly reveals that those in power lack ethical compassion; to paraphrase Craig Rosebraugh, appealing to the moral conscience of the ruling class is flawed because they lack a healthy functioning conscience. 6

Those struggling against oppression desire a less violent, more just world. It is not wanting more, but less, aggression and destruction that leads people to challenge the violence of the present system. To do nothing, or to engage in action that does not change the present conditions, only allows the current atrocities to persist and increase. Che Guevara put it best when he said, “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality." 7 Che’s understanding of the revolutionary is similar to Morihei Ueshiba’s belief that the true purpose of budo, translated as “the way of the warrior,” is love. 8 The apparent contradiction between love and fighting actually demonstrates the balance necessary in the life of a warrior. Lack of compassion can lead to the life of a thug, while the absence of martial skills will result in the inability to defend one’s self and community. The similarity between the revolutionary and the martial artist is centered in the principle of self-defense. There is no place within either set of ethics for violence based on selfishness or personal gain; however, it is recognized that violence is at times necessary to defend lives and rights.

The martial art Aikido is often referred to as nonviolent, which sounds like an oxymoron; however, nonviolent conflict resolution in Aikido is rooted in the ability to kill the opponent, and only when the option to do harm is present, can the true choice between a violent and non-violent end be made. A non-violent result also requires that the opponent desires to live and that they are placed in a position where the only way to survive the confrontation is to yield. If the opponent has no concern for their own safety, or cannot recognize that they are in a situation where they will be harmed if they continue to attack, then a non-violent resolution is not possible. Only when the power to take life is present, does the real choice not to take it exist.

If we take the above principles and apply them to a large-scale revolutionary movement, certain things become evident. If there is no intent or ability to do harm to the system, then any attempts to do so without the necessary skills will be fruitless. Even with the skills to do significant harm, it’s evident that the system is willing to sacrifice those employed in its defense, and therefore not committed to the long-term survival of all of its components. Nonviolent (sic) principles, when applied to revolutionary strategy, look nothing like moral pacifism; rather they appear as coercion by threat of violence, which when applied to the state and capitalism are generally labeled by the ruling class as terrorism. Another aspect of this parallel which needs to be addressed is that there should be no interest in having the system survive the encounter in the first place. While individuals within might yield and allow the power structure to be destroyed, there are those whose identities are so tied into it that they will do everything possible to stop the revolution.

When the rich and powerful exploit the rest of world by use and threat of violent force, the only way to achieve a relatively nonviolent world is through violent means, while attempts to use a nonviolent strategy to achieve these same ends would only result in catastrophe. The maxim that violence begets violence is transformed into revolutionary (sic) nonviolence begets violence, while revolutionary violence may result in a less violent world. This appears to be somewhat of a koan; however, unlike the Zen riddles without rational answers, there is an obvious answer to this apparent contradiction. Violence is already being perpetrated on an extreme level by the controllers of the state and capitalism. A nonviolent response to this institutionalized violence in no way threatens or challenges it; if anything, it only leads to increased violence. What is needed is self-defense that protects against current attacks and removes the ability for those in power to continue their assault on humanity and the rest of the biosphere.

One argument put forth to discourage militant action now is that the state is too powerful. Waiting only gives the state time to increase its power. The biosphere is being destroyed at an apocalyptic rate. Telling the oppressed that they should wait to defend themselves is siding with the oppressors. The state’s response to the radical militant actions of AIM, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the George Jackson Brigade, is often used as evidence of what the state will do to those who take up arms against it. Ward Churchill provides an excellent example of how pacifism can be divisive and aid the enemy:

“As the Panthers evidenced signs of making significant headway . . . the state perceived something more threatening than yet another series of candlelight vigils. It reacted accordingly, targeting the Panthers for physical elimination. When Party cadres responded (as promised) by meeting the violence of repression with armed resistance, the bulk of their ‘principled’ white support evaporated. This horrifying retreat rapidly isolated the Party from any possible mediating or buffering from the full force of state terror and left its members nakedly exposed to ‘surgical termination’ by special police units.”9

What is needed is not an avoidance of militant tactics, but rather organized solidarity between different groups organizing to abolish oppression. Without the necessary cross-community support required for revolutionary acts, militants will continued to be isolated and neutralized.

As long as the state is ignoring a method of resistance, it isn’t being effective; however, directly engaging the enemy on their terms, when they have superior numbers and firepower, is suicidal. What is needed for victory is effective strategy and tactics that recognize some of the points Churchill puts forth:

“The tenets are: (1) the Napoleonic credo that ‘victory goes to the side fielding the biggest battalions’; (2) that sheer scale of force can be offset through the utilization of the element of surprise; and (3) even more than surprise, tactical flexibility (i.e. concentration of force at weak points) can often compensate for lack of numbers (this is a prime point of ju jitsu).”10

Considering the US military budget is larger than all other countries’ military budgets combined gives it the advantage of resources against any opponent. However, the military is comprised primarily of people from the lower economic classes, as well as people of color, who have more in common with revolutionaries than with the government whom they serve. Tenets two and three are the key to taking on a superior force and that is where the path to victory lies. While legal political protest has its place as a tactic, it completely nullifies any element of surprise or flexibility when the time, place, and methods are revealed to the police.

Ignoring the oppression, exploitation and destruction will not make them go away, and neither will pleading with those who directly benefit from it. What is required for revolutionary success is long term strategy, including an escalation of tactics that is proportional to the strength of the movement, as well as the amount of support and solidarity provided by our allies. Self-defense is a right, and to be effective it not only requires the acquisition of technical skills, but on the larger scale, real community organizing. There is no time like the present to begin working on both.

1: Ryan, Mike; On Ward Churchill’s “Pacifism as Pathology”: Toward a Consistent Revolutionary Practice, pg. 161-162; 1998, Arbeiter Ring Publishing
2: Rainforest Action Network,
3: Ryan, Mike; On Ward Churchill’s “Pacifism as Pathology”: Toward a Consistent Revolutionary Practice, pg. 140; 1998, Arbeiter Ring Publishing
4: The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary; Oxford University Press, 1991
5: Churchill, Ward; Pacifism as Pathology, pg. 44; 1998, Arbeiter Ring Publishing
6: Rosebraugh, Craig; talk on Political Violence, Seattle Independent Media Center, March, 2003
7: Guevara, Ernesto Che; Socialism and Man in Cuba;
8: Morihei Ueshiba was the founder of the Japanese martial art Aikido. Aikido can be translated as “the way of harmony” or “the way of love.” Budo can be translated as “the way of the warrior.”
9: Churchill, Ward; Pacifism as Pathology pg. 59; 1998, Arbeiter Ring Publishing
10: Churchill. Ward; Pacifism as Pathology pg. 87-88; 1998, Arbeiter Ring Publishing